Despite having to fork out a small fortune for the experience, thousands of Indian tourists flock to Jungfrau every year. Few other places offer effortless mountain vistas for day trippers as well as challenging climbs for hardcore alpinists.
It’s dinner time at the Mönchjoch cabin – at 3,658 metres above sea level, it is one of Switzerland’s highest lodging that offers meals. The dining area is packed with restless climbers who’ll be attempting to climb the 4,158m Jungfrau peak starting at an ungodly hour in the morning.
To an outsider the mountain climbing junkies almost appear like a different species with their tanned limbs, rippling muscles, weather-beaten faces and colourful apparel. However, a bearded man wearing an orange turban still manages to stands out from the crowd that is busy tucking into hearty fare and swapping yarns about their latest mountain conquests.
He is Gurdeepak Singh Ahuja, the only Indian in the hut. He is also an Indian on a mission. The soft-spoken Sikh with a quick smile wants to hoist the Indian flag on the Jungfrau summit to commemorate Indian Independence Day on August 15. He’s roped in two Swiss friends to make it an Indo-Swiss expedition.
“We want to highlight the importance of interaction between the two cultures through the common sport of mountaineering,” the yoga teacher who lives and works in the Swiss capital Bern told swissinfo.ch.
After postponements due to bad weather and a grueling eight-hour climb across icy terrain - including a change in route due to treacherous conditions that cost an additional three hours - Ahuja finally succeeded in his quest, reaching the Jungfrau summit on August 30. Along with his two Swiss companions, he planted the Indian and Swiss flags at the peak for a photo to mark the feat.
Ahuja chose to climb the Jungfrau because it is an established stop on the Indian tourist circuit. Thousands of Indians take the mountain railway every year to the Jungfraujoch station for the chance to travel to the “Top of Europe” in comfort. Of the over 866,000 visitors in 2014, Indians formed the fourth largest contingent after Koreans, Chinese and Japanese.
Unlike Ahuja however, the vast majority of Indian tourists do not stray far from the railway station preferring to pose for pictures at the convenient view point a few hundred meters away.
“I wanted to see real snow and this is the first time in my life that I am able to experience it,” says Shyam Prabhakar from Bangalore. He has no regrets spending a little over CH200 ($208) for the train ride from the tourist town of Interlaken.
“I think it is worth coming here as we can see and experience things which we cannot easily do back home in India,” he says.
The Jungfrau private mountain railway made a record-breaking CHF165 million in 2014 of which almost CHF94 million came from ferrying tourists like Prabhakar to the Jungfraujoch.
“Around 70% of all our guests who visit the ‘Jungfraujoch-Top of Europe’ are from Asia,” says Patrizia Bickel, a spokesperson for the Jungfrau Railway Group. “Presently, India is developing well.”
With an average stay of just 2.2 days in Switzerland, Indian tourists appreciate the opportunity to take in breathtaking mountain scenery without getting out of breath by hiking for hours on end.
Abhishek Dhokte from Pune is a good example of the kind of Indian tourist the Jungfrau railways caters for. He’s visiting Jungfrau for the third time but this year he’s brought along his septuagenarian parents and in-laws.
“For a Swiss visit, a lake cruise and a visit to a mountain is important,” he says. “The train ticket is very costly but it is very convenient to get here and one can say that we have visited the highest view point in Europe.”
Another fan of the easy access to the Alps via the Jungfrau railway is Joseph Abraham from Kerala who’s travelling with his wife and five-month-old son.
“I think this is the only way to see this kind of scenery with a baby,” he says.
While tricky mountain ascents requiring climbing skills are the exception and fleeting visits to the base of the Jungfrau are the norm, a new type of Indian tourist is bridging both travel styles.
This breed of Indian is usually an expat who has discovered the pleasures of the European pastime of hiking in the great outdoors.
UK-based Soumil Shah and Resha Shirawala are on their seventh visit to Switzerland. They’ve taken the train up the mountain to do more than just take photos. They plan to get off at one of the stops below the Eiger glacier and hike down to the lower station. It’s a one-hour ramble on foot – a mere trifle compared to the 25km hike they did the day before.
Dubai-based Mohammed Farhan Kafil is also an avid hiker and has trekked in Ladakh and Nepal. He plans to go hiking in the foothills after his visit to the Jungfrau. “I wanted to see a glacier and I’ve never been on a mountain railway before,” he says. “Jungfrau offered me the chance to do both.”
Kafil is part of a group of Indian expats called “Lets drive” who are travelling around Europe by car, crossing seven alpine passes in Switzerland, Italy and Austria.
“We've changed since leaving India 12 years ago and we enjoy the outdoors, hiking and running now,” says Shirawala. “But when we're out on hikes in Switzerland or Germany we don't see a lot of Indian faces.”
This is what climbing aficionado and yoga guru Ahuja wants to change.
“Many Indians in Switzerland are inactive and do not interact with Swiss people or the natural environment,” he says.
According to him, hiking and mountaineering is the perfect way for staying active and making Swiss friends. He hopes that his ascent to the summit will inspire more Indians to step out of their comfort zone.